Over the years, Africa has produced great literary icons in drama, prose and even poetry. An attempt to name every one of these great men will be likened to an attempt to embark on a journey that clearly has no end. Well, this is just my way of saying that the list may be endless or so I think, for even the beautiful ones are not yet born. These great veterans stood up and became a resounding voice for African literature in a time when it was almost muffled by its foreign counterparts. One of these great fathers of African literature has been selected as a focus for today.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o a prolific Kenyan writer is known for his outstanding and didactic work which includes: novels, short stories, plays and essays. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu language journal Mutiiri. Ngugi has a lineup of great works to his name, and his magnum opus “Weep Not Child” which he wrote while attending the University of Leeds in England, was published in 1964. It was the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa. In 1967, this literary icon became lecturer in English literature at the University of Nairobi while serving as fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere from 1969 to 1970. During his time of service in Nairobi, Ngugi was at the centre of political affairs of the English departments in Africa and was the force behind the change of name from English to Literature to reflect world Literature and third world Literature at the centre. Some of his works are: The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1977), A Meeting In The Dark (1974), Matigari Ma Njiruungi(1986), Wizard of the Crow, (2006), Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009), Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010), In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012); to mention a few.
Ngũgĩ was born in Kamiriithu, a place near Limuru in Kiambu district, Kenya, of Kikuyu descent, and baptised James Ngugi-( a name he renounced later in his life). His family was caught up in the Mau Mau War; his half-brother Mwangi was a soldier in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, and his mother was tortured at Kamriithu homeguard post. This great writer surmounted immeasurable obstacles and prevailed against countless challenges in his way, yet he never lost hope in his pursuit. According to him, “our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it; those who strive to build a protective wall around it, and those who wish to pull it down; those who seek to mould it and those committed to breaking it up; those who aim to open our eyes, to make us see the light and look to tomorrow ….. and those who wish to lull us into closing our eyes”.
He attended Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools, and then moved on to Alliance High School- all in Kenya. Thereafter he proceeded to Makerere University College, Kampala Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain. He is a recipient of seven honorary awards.
Ngugi recalls being thrown into prison on December 31 1977, like a condemned criminal for his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) which was performed in an open air theatre in Kenya with characters from the peasants and workers of the village. The play was seen as controversial, repugnant and portraying the inequalities and injustices of the society. While in the prison, Ngugi never lost touch with creativity which led him to write his novel, Caitani Mutharabaini, translated to mean “Devil on the Cross” on prison issued toilet paper. He later took a decision to resort to his native language Gikuyu as the main language of creative writing instead of English.
As it appeared, luck was on his side, and he was released after he was named a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ by Amnesty international in 1978. After the release, Ngugi was forced to live in exile with his family. While in exile, Ngugi worked with its London-based Committee for the release of political prisoners in Kenya between 1992-1998 and championed the cause of human rights in Kenya. He was also a visiting professor at Byreuth University (1984), a writer in residence for Borough of Islington, London (1985), a visiting professor of English and comparative Literature at Yale(1989-1992), and a Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at the New York University from 1992-2002. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as the Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.